“How About Now” – Ags Connolly

4 stars (out of 5)

5

How About NowYou might have heard of Ags Connolly if you’re a MusicRiot regular; he’s had a few mentions here and he’s been quietly collecting followers and impressing critics for a while now.  His debut album, “How About Now”, features strong, sometimes very personal, songs, sympathetic playing and arrangements and powerful plaintive, vocals.  I’m sticking with the catch-all term “country” to describe these songs, although Ags prefers “Ameripolitan”, and the roots are much more in fifties and sixties country (or the later” outlaw country”) than in anything you’ll hear on the country charts today.  The overall sound of the album (produced by Drumfire recording artist Dean Owens), certainly reflects these influences.  It’s not the squeaky clean country-pop of Taylor Swift or Kacey Musgraves and the raw lyrical references are reflected in the arrangements and the playing.

The musicians recruited for the album are all first-class players.  In addition to Ags (acoustic guitar and vocals), they are: Stuart Nisbet (electric guitars, pedal steel, mandolin and vocals), Kev Mcguire (stand-up bass), Jim McDermott (drums), Andy May (keyboards), Roddy Neilson (fiddle) and Dean Owens (vocals and acoustic guitar).  I’m a big fan of rehearsing a band to performance level before recording live in the studio to get a very cohesive and immediate feel.  It’s not for everyone but, with good musicians, it can work really well; it certainly has on “How About Now”.  Virtually everything was recorded live with only a few overdubs of mandolin and piano and, incredibly, the title track, with its minimal arrangement and pleading, emotive vocal, was recorded in one take.  Now, that’s impressive.

The album opens with the straightforward honky-tonk of “When Country Was Proud”, listing some of Ags’ influences (mainly early-period Johnny Paycheck) and lamenting the position of country music in the media  today before moving into the melancholy reminiscence of “Good Memory For Pain”, featuring understated backing vocals and some nice fiddle.  “That’s The Last Time”, with its stripped-back production, is the first of a set of damaged or broken relationship songs including the slower “Get Out Of My Mind”, the rockabilly feel of “The Dim And Distant Past” and the slower “She Doesn’t Need me Anymore”, which emphasises Ags’ vocal range.

The album is particularly successful when Ags takes traditional country lyrical themes and gives them a modern English twist.  “I Hoped She Wouldn’t Be Here” takes the “best friend’s girl” theme and sets it in a group of friends in a local pub, while “I’m Not Someone You Want To Know” locates the hard-drinking, morose loner looking back at better times in an English pub.  “Trusty Companion” is a surprisingly uptempo take on the quest for a soul-mate while the mid-tempo “I Saw James Hand” is a very personal fan letter to one of Ags’ more contemporary influences.

This album is a very British version of the type of country music played before the advent of the clean, more poppy Nashville sound.  You’ll hear a lot of nice clean guitar and pedal steel licks here, but there is a raw edge to the production as well.  “I Saw James Hand” features some Hammond and a distorted guitar solo, while “She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore” even has some controlled guitar feedback.  The sequencing of the album is perfect, opening with the lively, backward-looking “When Country Was Proud”, working through poignant and nostalgic to finish on four very personal songs set in the present including the beautiful closer “How About Now”; surely that song has to get a single release.

It’s easy to do this kind of music very predictably but Ags Connolly, Dean Owens and a very gifted band have produced an engaging and ultimately uplifting album which looks back to a time when country was less polished musically and lyrically while placing it in a very British setting.  Top album and great artwork as well.

Release date February 24 on Drumfire Records (DRMFR017).